Like any multi-layered art form, writing good lyrics takes years of practice. Find new ways to approach and refine your craft with helpful tips for each part of the process.
Choose Your Point of View
Before you set pen to paper, you need to make some big-picture decisions. Will you be writing in first person ("I, me, my") or third person? Will it be a fictional story or a true event? Or will the lyrics be filled with absurdist surreal imagery similar to the lyrics of alternative artists like Beck? This decision is similar to choosing a character for a novel: you're selecting your song's main character. What perspective and personality will the "voice" of your lyrics have?
Select a Theme That Inspires You
After you've decided on a point of view, think about a general theme. Is it a song about long-distance relationships or a nostalgic country song about your small town? Or maybe it's a simple dance song designed to bring life to the party. Whatever it is, decide on a general theme that inspires you and energizes your creative motivation. Try these tricks to inspire you:
- Watch some of your favorite movies and look for themes or topics.
- Think about your favorite novels. Is there a character whose story inspires lyric ideas?
- Listen to your all-time favorite songs and look for inspiring themes or lyrical approaches you'd like to emulate without plagiarizing. (Using the work of other artists as general templates for inspiration is a great way to start.)
Quickly Brainstorm Ideas
A great way to do this is to simply make lists of as many people, places, and things (even holidays and special occasions) as you can. After you finish the list, write as many "practice" sentences as you can. These are not your lyrics, just a warm-up before writing your first draft. The goal is to do quick free-association writing. You're letting the creative parts of your brain spill as many ideas on the page as possible.
How to Write the First Draft
Peruse the ideas in your brainstorming lists above and identify your favorite words, sentences, or themes. Start writing your lyrics using those favorites as guides. Don't obsess over making the first draft perfect. Keep the structure simple. You can always tweak it into something more complicated later.
Follow a Basic Song Structure Template
The following is a general template for song structure. You can use this as a starting point and modify as desired:
- Verse 1 (four lines of lyrics)
- Chorus (two to four lines)
- Verse 2 (four lines)
- Chorus (four lines)
- Bridge (two to four lines)
- End (usually little to no lyrics or chorus will repeat and fade out)
It can be more interesting to avoid perfect rhymes and use slant rhymes (also called near or half rhymes) instead. In this rhyming technique, you choose words that sound very similar but are not exact matches in their ending sounds. For example, "weep" and "seek" are slant rhymes. The words don't end with the same letter, but they share the same vowel sound in the active syllable.
Your word choice will give each line a rhythm, especially when you use poetic meters such as the classic iambic pentameter that Shakespeare used. Although you don't have to go full Shakespeare, you do need to be mindful of the rhythmic feel and length of each line. Each line in a section should share the same length and rhythmic feel. Verses don't have to match choruses, but lines within each section should have consistent length and rhythm.
Get Some Critique
After you've finished a first draft, bring it to a trusted friend who can provide objective criticism. The sooner you see your work from an outsider's point of view, the better your revising will be as you edit the lyrics and bring the song into focus.
Try an Exercise for Fine-Tuning
After you've got some helpful critique, try this approach to fine-tuning and revision:
- Take colored pens (or use the highlighter tool in the computer) and mark the section (verse 1, chorus, verse 2, etc.) that works the best and the section that seems the weakest.
- In the section you marked as your favorite, examine each line and pick the line you like the most. In that line you liked, circle the words or phrases that seem to make the line work.
- In the section you marked as your least favorite, search each line and pick the one you like the least. Circle the words or phrases in that line that seem to be the weak links.
This is just a quick exercise to help you see what is working and not working in a song. As you pinpoint the weak spots and the strengths, work on revising the weak spots and try to replicate the things that worked in the strong spots.
A Marathon, Not a Sprint
Some poets will spend years crafting a single poem. Although the music industry sometimes doesn't allow that kind of slow pace in your work, it's a good mentality to keep with lyric writing. The more patient you are with developing your lyrics, the better they will be in the end.